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Exporting Los Angeles gang reduction strategies to Central America

Gang Intervention - 07

Mae Ryan/KPCC

Monitcello Stephens talks to a police officer about a recent fight at Augustus Hawkins High School in L.A. A former gang member, Stephens is now trying to bridge the gap between gangs and the police to create a safer neighborhood.

Can the gang reduction strategies in Los Angeles that are credited, in part, for helping decrease gang-related crimes work in Central America?

That’s what international policy experts and social workers hope. Read a report on the topic below.

Last year, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) forged a partnership with the city of Los Angeles to share what L.A. has learned with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The city's policies are credited with reducing gang-related homicides, other crimes and increase safety for residents in neighborhoods frequented by gangs.

RELATED: LA's gang intervention strategy headed to El Salvador in new collaboration

The topic was the opening panel discussion at the two-day L.A. Gang Violence Prevention and Intervention conference, where a mix of law enforcement, social workers, government officials, gang members, health workers and international representatives are sharing what has worked for them.

The Los Angeles Police Department, along with the mayor’s office, estimated in March that since 2005, gang-related crime has fallen by 55 percent. Gang-related homicides are down 67 percent.

Criminologists are studying the historic low crime rate. But others are not waiting for the science. They are already attributing a lot of that progress to L.A.’s Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) office.

“What you’re doing here is not only having an impact in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities,” said Mark Feierstein of USAID. “It has impact throughout this entire hemisphere.”

The office has identified 12 “targeted zones” or concentrated neighborhood pockets where violent, gang-related crime is at least 400 percent higher than elsewhere in Los Angeles. It’s in these areas that social services, gang interventionist and other resources are deployed heaviest. 

GRYD director Guillermo Cespedes has traveled with USAID to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which has some of the highest murder rates in the world. 

He said most of GRYD’s strategies are transferable. For example, concentrating efforts on the small percentage of youth that are at the highest risk or most vulnerable to being recruited by a gang.

Cespedes said after school programs for at-risk youth, “exit-ramps” for kids who are already involved in gangs but want a way out, and re-entry plans for gangsters coming out of prison are all L.A. strategies that are transferable to Central American communities.

“I think it’s really important to keep thinking of this idea that we are not disconnected,” said Cespedes. “We are connected through family with many countries (which) now have what’s called a transnational problem.”

Cespedes warned that the family-centered approach to gang intervention is much harder when talking about transnational gang members. Being able to support every family member to help keep the at-risk kid from joining a gang takes a plan that is difficult to deploy when you have relatives that live part-time in the U.S. and part-time in another country.

“Maybe it’s time to start looking at this transnational problem through a different lens,” he said. “One that is not exclusively driven through law enforcement.” 

Cespedes said it’s a tall order. But a shift in anti-gang strategy by foreign governments is progressive.

At the conference, Raul Santoyo Carranza, scribbled notes as a Lynwood hospital trauma surgeon talked about how doctors can be social workers and gang interventionists.

Carranza has been working for the last 10 years with Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to get rid of gangs and the violence. The strategy has always been aggressive policing toward gang members and incarceration. He says it hasn’t worked.

“Now what we want to do is work to give them an opportunity to get out,” Carranza said in Spanish. “The old way is a system, like a carousel.”

Read the Congressional report: Gangs in Central America

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